We’ve been saying it all summer, but this year’s NASCAR Cup Series championship in November is going to go through Kevin Harvick or Denny Hamlin. Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 further proved that point.
In the last doubleheader weekend at Pocono in June, they finished 1-2 each day. At the Michigan International Speedway, the site of the second doubleheader weekend of 2020, they did it again — just only in the second race.
Harvick, bested Hamlin by just .093 seconds in his No. 4 Ford on Sunday, which amounted to the second closest finish since data was established and the third time in nine races they went 1-2.
It also accounted for a clean sweep of the weekend for Harvick who dominated both races in the Irish Hills on both days.
He led 92 of 161 laps in Saturday’s race and had to start 20th due to an invert of the top 20 finishers on Sunday. That didn’t stop him from leading 90 of 156 laps a day later en route to his series leading sixth win of the year as well as three straight and four of the last five at Michigan in general.
Also, the win Harvick moves into a tie with Rusty Wallace for 10th on the all-time wins list at 55 trips to victory lane each. Next up is Kyle Busch with 56, then Dale Earnhardt in eighth with 76 wins in NASCAR’s premiere series.
He’s now scored nine straight top five finishes on the year.
For Hamlin, he had a good enough car to make it interesting in the end, cutting Harvick’s lead to less than three tenths, he just didn’t have enough to get by him. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver said that he felt he had a second place car on Saturday and that’s exactly where he finished in his No. 11 Toyota on Sunday.
It was Hamlin’s ninth top two finish (5 wins, 4 runner-ups) of the season, five of which coming in the last eight races overall.
Harvick has Hamlin beat (6-5) in race wins in 2020 and 35-29 in playoff points.
Martin Truex Jr. finished third in his No. 19 Toyota for the fourth straight race and nabbed a top three for the fifth time in the last six races run. He also has a top four finish in each of his last four Michigan starts too.
Kyle Busch have JGR 2-3-4 finishes on Sunday saying this was the best car he’s ever had at Michigan. He’s starting to heat up again in scoring his third top five in his last five starts in the season and six straight top sixes at Michigan. He’s just not won all year and has scored only one win in his last 44 starts.
Joey Logano rounded out the top five in his No. 22 Ford.
Penske Teammates take each other out
Team Penske drivers tangled in the final stage of Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 NASCAR Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway.
Race-leader Ryan Blaney and teammate Brad Keselowski were side-by-side racing into Turn 1 on Lap 96 when Keselowski got loose in the No. 2 Ford, sliding into the left-rear quarter panel of Blaney’s No. 12 Ford. The contact sent both drivers hard into the outside retaining wall at the exit of Turn 2.
Keselowski’s car came sliding to a halt on the backstretch, while Blaney was able to nurse his car back to the garage area. Both drivers were forced to retire from the 156-lap event due to the significance of the damage. Both drivers were evaluated and released from the infield care center.
Keselowski took full responsibility for the incident.
“I just lost it,” Keselowski told NBC Sports. “It‘s my fault. I feel really bad for my teammate, Ryan Blaney. He didn‘t deserve that. I just came off of Turn 4 and the 4 car (Kevin Harvick) was behind me and he gave me a push and I swear I went into the corner like 20 miles an hour faster than I had been all day and got past the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and I went to get underneath the 12 and I just slipped.”
Blaney explained both he and Keselowski had showcased good speed throughout the race before the incident.
“It‘s just unfortunate for the whole Penske organization,” Blaney said. “… We were so fast. We had to battle back from having to pit again and got to 10th for the second stage and then got the lead. I was like, ‘All right, we can finally go back at it,’ and just got together there. That‘s unfortunate, but it‘s not gonna carry over. Things happen. Mistakes happen. It‘s just a shame both of us got taken out.”
Keselowski finished in the 39th and final position, while Blaney finished one spot ahead in 38th.
Blaney and Keselowski are locked into the NASCAR Playoffs with race victories. Blaney earned a victory at Talladega Superspeedway, while Keselowski has wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Keselowski finished second in Saturday’s Cup Series first race at the 2-mile oval, while Blaney finished fourth.
It ruins a streak of top 11s for Keselowski as this was just the third time since the pandemic he didn’t finish in the top 11. For Blaney, he leaves with yet another result outside of the top 20.
Toyota drivers close, Harvick just that much better
Both Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. questioned their cars still despite finishing in the top three last weekend in New Hampshire. They felt like they were just missing something and didn’t think that the speed would equate to much on a higher horsepower track like Michigan would be this weekend.
Yes, they lacked in speed in comparison to Kevin Harvick. But, so did everyone. Harvick, was in a league all to himself. The Toyota guys were right there with them though.
Denny Hamlin was second and third respectively in the two stages on Saturday. He would finish sixth in the race. He did come home runner-up on Sunday.
Martin Truex Jr. was third on both days while Kyle Busch said that this was the best car he’s ever had at Michigan and finished fifth and fourth respectively.
Harvick may have swept both races, but the Toyota camp wasn’t far behind.
Championship contenders separating themselves from the pack
There’s no question, Harvick and Hamlin are the ones to beat for this championship. But, three other drivers are saying not so far. I think the fight to get into the Championship 4 this year is going to be intense.
Harvick and Hamlin are only separated by six playoff points (35-29). Where this is a big deal is, if neither win in the Round of 8, the final spot to Phoenix will come down to this. But, if one of them wins, they’re distancing themselves from everyone else that they certainly will skate by.
But, the three driver race behind is intense.
Brad Keselowski has 21 playoff points and three wins. Since we began racing again on May 17, the Penske driver has a top 11 finish in all but three races, one of which was Sunday. But, Keselowski was battling for the lead when he crashed too. So, he’s not going anywhere.
Neither is Martin Truex Jr. He’s scored a top three finish in five of the last six races. Combined, this foursome has won 14 of the 18 races run during the pandemic. If you throw in Joey Logano’s two wins back in the spring, five drivers have accounted for 16 wins in 22 races. Plus, Logano is heating up again with a top five in three of his last five starts of the season.
This is the group to beat.
Kyle Busch is starting to heat up with three top five finishes this year, but he’s also not on either and has just one victory in his last 44 starts overall. Can he catch up to them? He’s only scored one playoff point all year, so if Busch is going to make a playoff run, he’s likely going to have to win in each round starting in the Round of 12.
Other than that, I can’t say that I trust anyone else right now.
Where is Hendrick Motorsports?
Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman jumped out of the gates hot. Elliott, won in the second Charlotte race and had a span between Darlington to Bristol to where he could have won every race. Still, from Fontana in March to Homestead on June 21, Elliott had eight top eight finishes, six in the top five, in a 10 race span. But, over the last 10 races, Elliott has just one top five overall.
Bowman, should have won in Vegas. He did win a week later in Fontana. He finished runner-up in the first race back on May 17 at Darlington. Over the last 17 races, Bowman has just four top 10 finishes, none of which in the top five. Five of his last seven finishes have seen him come home 19th or worse.
That leaves two drivers vying for a wildcard spot in William Byron and Jimmie Johnson. Byron, leads Johnson by 26 points for the final position into the postseason.
Byron, has no top five finishes all year and no finish better than 10th in his last seven starts.
Johnson, has no top 10 finishes in his last 10 tries and no finish better than 10th since early June.
HMS won 12 stages early this year, 11 of which in the first 19 stages, but over the last 26 stages, they have just one win, that came back in June in Martinsville.
HMS went 7-12-14-21 on Saturday and 9-11-12-36 on Sunday at Michigan. They’re backing their ways into the playoffs right now.
If not for two races at Daytona, this playoff battle would likely be done. William Byron holds a 26 point advantage over 17th place Erik Jones. With how the playoff bubble drivers are running, barring a wild unexpected turn of events in Daytona next Sunday and/or on Aug. 29, I think the 16 current playoff drivers will remain.
Aric Almirola saw his top 10 streak end on Saturday but pick back up on Sunday. He’s +158. Kyle Busch scored a top six both days and is now +140. His brother Kurt Busch finished 10th both races and is +137.
The next grouping is Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto. Bowyer, went from +43 entering the weekend to +60. DiBenedetto also gained 17 points himself in going +40 to +57. Unless we get two new winners, these guys are likely set.
That leaves Byron who get a 14th and 12th place finish this weekend. His gap was cut by Erik Jones who scored 22 stage points this weekend, but his 27th place finish negated that gain.
Tyler Reddick was only 18th and 24th respectively and sits -26, as does Jimmie Johnson who also is -26 after an uneventful weekend of 12th and 11th place finishes. Reddick and Johnson also scored zero stage points. Byron totaled five.
Harvicks car is 3-for-3 this year. This is the same car that won the Brickyard 400 on July 5. It now swept Michigan. Harvick notes that they likely won’t use this car again this year since it’s big track specific.